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Inspiration from Behind the Walls

Michael D. Yates is associate editor of Monthly Review. For many years he taught economics at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. He is the author of Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global System (2004), Why Unions Matter (1998), and Longer Hours and Fewer Jobs: Employment and Unemployment in the United States (1994), all published by Monthly Review Press.


David Gilbert, No Surrender: Writings from an Anti-Imperialist Political Prisoner (Montreal: Abraham Guillen Press, 2004), 283 pages, paper $15.00.

David Gilbert is serving a seventy-five year to life prison sentence for his participation in the 1981 holdup of a Brinks armored truck in which three persons were killed, two police officers and a security guard. The attempted robbery was an effort to raise money for the Black Liberation Army (BLA), an underground offshoot of the Black Panther Party. By the time of the Brinks events, David had been a committed revolutionary for nearly twenty years. In 1965 he founded the Committee Against the War in Vietnam while a student at Columbia University; he was a founding member of the Columbia chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1967; he was a leader of the famous student strike at Columbia in 1968; and he was an early member of the Weathermen faction of SDS in 1969, whose members soon went underground to wage war against U.S. imperialism and racism, renaming themselves the Weather Underground. They hoped to support all those around the world actually fighting against U.S. imperialism and even to ignite a popular uprising in the United States through a series of spectacular bombings of government facilities (including the Pentagon) and corporate offices and banks, as well as by written propaganda and analysis. Great efforts were made to ensure that no one was killed in these bombings and, remarkably, no one was. It became clear in the changed conditions of the mid-1970s (following the final defeat of the United States in Vietnam) that the organization’s underground existence had lost its political relevance. By the early 1980s, most members had surfaced. Looking back, it is clear that the post-Watergate period was a short and unique period in which police misconduct and illegality were disallowed by U.S. courts. Since the Weather Underground had been the target of massive illegal government actions, in most cases the government was unable to prosecute those who surfaced. By the time of the Brinks robbery in October 1981 the Weather Underground Organization had been defunct for years. David was one of a few who had refused to surface, believing that solidarity with the still existing black underground, the BLA, took precedence. David was the driver of the getaway vehicle and did not himself hurt anyone in the Brinks robbery. At his trial he took the position that he was a prisoner of war, and he received a sentence improbable (or even impossible) in any other country. He remains in prison, and under the letter of New York State law will not be eligible for parole until he is 111-years-old. Given the draconian term he received and the goals of the attempted robbery, David Gilbert must be considered a political prisoner.

This book is mainly a collection of informative book reviews written by David while in prison. The mere writing of these reviews and the other essays in this volume, much less their overall excellence and usefulness for our struggle to create a better world, is a remarkable thing. As political prisoner Marilyn Buck says in her foreword to the book,

As a prisoner myself for nearly 20 years, I know how difficult it is to create and to engage with the world. It is a never-ending effort to get hold of reading materials and to keep them, or to do research, much less to read, study, and think. Thought is constantly disrupted; arbitrary rules and interruptions create a chaos in which sorrow, discontent, and rage are the generalized response to and currency of the harsh cruelty, brutality, and absences of imprisoned women’s and men’s lives. Noise, stress, fear, even mental breaks fill the time and space of the prison world. But in reading his [David’s] words, that in and of themselves are a triumph of the human spirit, we experience resistance, commitment, and courage.

The reviews are given coherence by being arranged into chapters by topic: white supremacy, race and class, women of color, women and male supremacy, the criminal justice system, AIDS in prison and in the world, imperialism, human rights, and the environment. In addition to the reviews there are also a number of autobiographical statements, including two from his trials, a few humorous pieces and two children’s stories (one of the stories was presented serially to his son over successive weekly phone calls), interviews given by David, and commentaries on events and organizations in which he played a central role. Through his reviews and essays, David Gilbert tells us something important about subjects of great significance for an understanding of our world, and about the possibilities and prospects for human liberation.

Several things stand out in David’s reviews. The first is his simple humanity. This shines through in his complete identification with the oppressed. Unlike most of us, he has fully shed his own class background and made the perspective of the world’s workers and peasants his own. This is clear whether he is writing about Ota Benga, the Pygmy brought to the United States in the early 1900s and exhibited in zoos, or about the persecution of Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Second, David shows us that an identity with the oppressed has to be matched with active struggle. Of course, he did engage in struggle before he went to prison. However, he has managed to continue to be a committed revolutionary even from his prison cell. He shows us the reality of the criminal justice system: its role in destroying working-class, and most especially the black working-class, collective organization; its overall class and race bias; and its role in promoting racism as a scapegoating mechanism for a system which finds much of the black population expendable. David’s writings are themselves acts of resistance, obviously for him, but for us too since their power forces us to think and act. But David has also engaged in social and political actions inside prison, most notably in his AIDS activism. He has helped to organize his fellow prisoners to demand that prison authorities do something to stop the AIDS epidemic in our nation’s prisons. He helped formulate detailed plans to achieve this, emphasizing prisoners educating one another and preparing materials suggesting alternatives to the methods for cleaning needles advocated by the authorities, which were useless. There is a long and informative article in this book in which David takes apart the AIDS conspiracy theory (that the AIDS virus was intentionally introduced into black communities). The conspiracy theory resonated with black people’s experience of medical neglect and abuse in the United States, and tragically resulted in many prisoners dismissing the relevance of AIDS prevention. Gilbert both debunks the theory and traces the origins of the version circulating in prison to hardcore white supremacists.

Third, David’s writings show that it is essential for all of us to continually test our theory against practice and to be willing to grow and develop intellectually. The reviews in this book cover a very wide and varied terrain. There are reviews of novels and stories, reports by advocacy groups, collections of essays, and books of historical and political analysis. Such wide reading is necessary if one wants to develop a coherent and humane theoretical framework. In addition, as the chapter headings noted above indicate, the reviews cover a large number of subjects, allowing David to make connections among race, gender, class, and imperialism. He shows how he has undergone an intellectual transformation over the years, rejecting some ideas (such as the hopelessly racist character of the white working class and the effectiveness of violent underground deeds without an aboveground mass movement) and embracing others, foremost here is feminism. There are fine reviews of works by Barbara Smith, bell hooks, and Margaret Randall. Thus the anti-imperialism and antiracism which must be centers of the struggle against capitalism and for socialism are deepened by a critical examination of the past, including his own. I recommend in this connection also the reviews of books by Ted Allen, W. E. B. Du Bois, C. J. Sakai, Walter Rodney, and Butch Lee and Red Rover.

I have taught classes in a maximum security prison. I was always amazed at the seriousness of the students. But what was truly remarkable was their kindness and consideration not just for me but for their fellow classmates, mixed in with an unexpected (to me at least) sense of humor. It is these characteristics that shine through David Gilbert’s book. They also come through even in the few seconds of conversation David was permitted with film makers Sam Green and Bill Siegel in their documentary The Weather Underground. Despite all these years in prison and all the degradations that come with them, David remains committed and caring. As he says in the book’s final paragraph,

We don’t have a chance for a decent future for all children unless we can change public terms and perceptions to get across that every human life is precious. Staying in close touch with our love for people and for life on the planet can both impel and sustain us. As Che Guevara urged decades ago, “We must stand firm but without losing our tenderness, ever.”

We must constantly remind those we know of the crucial fact that the United States imprisons far more of its population than any other nation in the world. It takes great courage and more to make one’s life an act of solidarity in the face of such fierce repression. No decent person could read this book without feelings of respect, support, and love for David Gilbert. Tested by events and by time, he stands without doubt among the very best of his generation. He writes with humor and brilliance. Read his book. And then, let us all devote at least a part of our lives to ending the multiple repressions he has devoted his life to ending.